Howling at the apple trees to uphold Sussex tradition

Wassail 2013 upright
Wassail 2013 upright

PEOPLE chancing to visit the Royal Oak pub at Rye Foreign on Saturday night could be forgiven for thinking they had travelled back in time.

They would have encountered strangely clad in men with blackened faces, top hats and hunting horns and bearing flaming torches as they shouted at the top of their voices at apple trees.

It was all about keeping the old Sussex tradition of Howling , or Wassailing as it is more widely known, alive.

The winter custom was once common in early January in rural Sussex and Kent and was enacted in the hope of stirring the trees into producing a bumper crop of apples the following autumn.

Bread soaked in cider is put on the branches as a gift for the birds and the roots of the tree are also soaked in cider. A cacophony of loud bangs follows with the aim of scaring away evil spirits.

Howling was revived, in this corner of East Sussex by bonfire stalwart John Beeching, from Whatlington, near Battle, after John’s wife had an apple tree planted outside the Royal Oak pub at Whatlington as a birthday present.

The then owner of the Royal Oak moved to Rye Foreign, taking the name of the pub with her and the wassailing ceremony followed with John still the organiser.

Saturday’s celebrations, attended by more than 100 people, also saw a display of Border Morris dancing and a traditional Sussex Mumming, or Tipteering , Play performed in the pub.

The word Wassail is Anglo Saxon and means ‘good health’.

Wassailing ceremonies see a bowl of hot spiced cider being passed around among the participants who drink to each other’s health.

The first recorded mention of Howling was at Fordwich, Kent, in 1585, by which time groups of young men would go between orchards performing the rite for a reward of strong ale and cider from the orchard owners.

Those attending Saturday’s celebration came from as far away as Hastings and Bexhill and there was a contingent from Rye.

Participant Andy McDufffie explained: “Observing these old traditions is not only a great way of keeping them alive, it is also an enjoyable way of spending time with like-minded friends.

It walks the line between everyday reality and a very rich mythic heritage that is available to all of us.

“That is what makes nights like the Rye Foreign Wassail genuinely timeless.

“It is also also a lot better than staying in and watching television”

John Beeching said: “Thanks to everyone who came along and made it such a great success.

“The event takes place on January 11 next year so you can put it in your diaries now.”